SIMPLIFY: Alignment

This post was originally published on September 10, 2015 by Matt Drewette-Card at

In my work to simplify everything we do, I have come to a realization that part of the reason there is a huge disconnect in understanding the principles and applying a standards-based learning model, is caught up in the word: alignment.  Educators have been working on alignment for decades; vertical alignment, horizontal alignment, interdisciplinary alignment, standards alignment, etc.  It’s not a new concept to educators.  In fact, many hear the word alignment and think, “here we go again.”  Or, “didn’t we do this already?”  Or, “why bother?  What we align to now will change in 5 years?  What’s the point?”

Schools and education systems seem to be continually aligning, which, by default and logic, means that they are constantly, in part, misaligned.  It’s natural; as systems grow and evolve, things change and courses need to be slightly corrected.  It happens with planes, trains, and automobiles… everywhere,  And if the targets keep changing, it’s easy to understand the frustration and anxiety alignment can bring to educators.  We’re busy enough, and the last thing we need is more busy-work that we believe will have no impact on my classroom.

Sound familiar?

Maybe the issue, then, isn’t alignment itself, but how and what we are aligning.  All educators I talk to agree that vertical, horizontal, interdisciplinary, and standards alignment is necessary, but the frustration in doing redundant work impedes true progress.  This is were I say: perhaps it’s because we haven’t been really been aligning to what’s most important: complexity.

Educators have always aligned to content.  In mathematics, the alignment of content is concrete.  Number Sense, leads to Addition and Subtraction, which leads to Multiplication and Division, which leads to Fractions and Decimals, etc.  In English/Language Arts, it’s about phonemic awareness to word recognition to sentences to paragraphs to tone and point of view to grammar and finally to at all costs avoiding run-on sentences because the reader needs to take a break which is why commas, ellipses, semicolons, etc., were invented so get on with it already!  If you track most curriculum from K-12, you will find that the alignment is (and has mostly) been based on content.  My contention is that this is the WRONG way to align.  I know I shouldn’t say WRONG because it’s judgmental and opinionated and strong, but it’s how I feel.  And not just how I feel, but there’s evidence backing it up too.

We should be basing our curriculum, instruction, and assessment systems on COMPLEXITY over content.  Content is the frosting on the cake; it’s yummy and sweet, and oh-so-delicious, but if you want cake and just get a plate of frosting… something’s going to be missing, and you’re going to feel cheated.  COMPLEXITY is the cake; content is the frosting.  Here’s what I mean:

Take the equation for measuring Newton’s second law of motion (F = ma).  A student can IDENTIFY or USE the equation.  In terms of the Marzano Taxonomy, that’s very low level cognitive thinking.  It’s clear that the student has a basic/foundational grasp of the content by meeting this level of complexity.  The alignment question should be: is that complexity level high enough?  If the standard is written at a Retrieval level on the Marzano Taxonomy, then our curriculum-instruction-assessment is aligned.  But what if the standard is written at an Analysis level on the Marzano Taxonomy?  And what if our instruction and assessment only asks students to perform at a Retrieval level?  Has the student “Met the Standard”?  Is the student “Applying the Standard”?

From the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS): “PS2-1: Analyze data that supports Newton’s Second Law with Force, mass, and acceleration.”

Part of the reason our students aren’t retaining information lesson-to-lesson, unit-to-unit, or year-to-year, isn’t because our curriculum-instruction-assessment is misaligned in terms of content.  In fact, I believe we throw TOO MUCH content at them.

In a word: SIMPLIFY.

Align to complexity.  Base the curriculum-instruction-assessment systems off of complexity.  Here’s what you need in order to do this:

  1. A clear definition of Proficiency (ours is, “Independently applying all expectations.”  Feel free to copy/adopt/steal/share.
  2. A clear definition of Rigor. (We use the definition from Marzano Center at  Learning Sciences: Rigor = Cognitive Complexity + Student Autonomy)
  3. A Taxonomy of Cognitive Complexity (We use the Marzano Taxonomy because it’s very clear in how to scaffold both down and up)
  4. Standards (we use the Maine Learning Results, Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, American Council for Teaching Foreign Language, NOCTE, ISTE, among others).

That’s it.  Simplify.  The content can be measured at a low level of complexity, and a high level of complexity.  If we only align to content, then one grade level (or multiple classrooms within that grade level) might be measuring at a higher/lower levels of complexity, meaning the depth of understanding and application of the content varies year to year, student to student.  Start here.  End here.

Alignment isn’t challenging.  It shouldn’t be frustrating.  Base everything off of COMPLEXITY.  


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Rigor Equation Chart.001

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